CITY HALL — As a Chicago homeowner who puts out his trash in the rodent-chewed bins that line my alley, I would like to remind every alderman that together you’ve got more juice than you think.
While our city faces a financial Doomsday scenario presented by Mayor Rahm “Never Let A Good Crisis Go To Waste" Emanuel, every ward boss — even the rookies and the desperate few who accepted the mayor’s campaign help to win re-election — should remember this: He’s got nothing without your vote.
The way Emanuel used the mayoral "we" in his budget address Tuesday should be reminder enough.
"I know this budget is tough and I know therefore carries political risk. I get it,” the mayor said. "But there is a choice to be made: Either we muster the political courage to deal with this mounting challenge or we repeat the same practices and allow the financial challenges to grow."
But if the heavy use of "we" is not enough, consider Ald. John Arena’s take on the political reality following the mayor’s budget speech.
“He walks around saying we’re just going to do things,” the 45th Ward boss said. “I think if you took the vote right now in that room he wasn’t going to get the votes.”
Still, Emanuel, who billed himself as the man-with-the-plan in his successful re-election campaign, played from a position of power. He didn’t skimp on the drama presenting his historic property tax hike, and the new garbage fee and other taxes that come with it, as the only option that can save the city from being forced to lay off 2,500 police officers and 2,000 firefighters, shut down 48 fire stations, collect garbage twice a month and stop repairing pot holes, killing rats and erasing graffiti.
It doesn’t take a genius to know that’s not the only alternative.
But sometimes in politics a leader must make a crazy apocalyptic prophecy — otherwise known as a threat — to get what he wants. And no one can deny our mayor has a particular talent for that.
Ultimately, though, the job of being mayor doesn’t come with the power of a supreme ruler that Emanuel, and Mayor Richard M. Daley before him, pretend to possess.
In Chicago, where the mayor has been better known as "Boss" for generations, it’s easy to forget Chicago is home to a strong-council, weak-mayor form of government.
Still, it has long been customary for the City Council to take orders from the mayor like they're teenagers working the McDonald’s drive-through. Sometimes they dare to use the interaction to please their own constituents by asking for ward-specific favors, the political equivalent of “do you want fries with that?”
I can almost hear years of budget exchanges as if they played out over a busted speaker.
“OK, Mr. Mayor, let’s get this right. You want the corrupt parking meter, speed and red-light camera combo. One Millennium Park, hold the pension payments, a bunch of plastic poles for bike lanes, an arena for DePaul University that no one wants and a Downtown TIF district slush fund with no oversight. And now you want a historic property tax increase and a new garbage collection fee? And you want it to pass with unanimous approval? OK, boss. All in favor say, Aye. Opposed, stay home. Motion carries.”
That’s the Chicago Way, right?
Wrong. Despite the long-held precedent to defer to the mayor’s wishes, or else, ultimately the decision-making power, whether it’s the city budget or a commissioner’s appointment, rests in the hands of an aldermanic majority.
That might come as a surprise to folks who have watched city government at work under former Mayor Daley and Emanuel, when most aldermen gave the boss little to no push back.
Indeed, the City Council’s rubberstamp tendencies were one of the biggest reasons Emanuel wanted to be mayor.
Emanuel has said that being mayor of Chicago — a big city under a de facto one-party City Council that can be controlled by a strong leader — provides the opportunity to make big changes that frankly are unattainable on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.
Consider this: Even before Emanuel first took office in 2011, he used his in-your-face personality, bolstered by his clout with President Obama, to act like the City Hall boss he aspired to be once, not if, he got elected. He personally called aldermen and told them they needed to know if he had their support right now — not if there’s a runoff — and even implied there might be consequences if they didn’t fall in line.
He wasn’t even elected yet.
And that’s the kind of leadership Chicagoans, especially aldermen domesticated by the Democratic machine, have become familiar with over the years. As things stand now, some aldermen still would rather trade their budget vote for a pet project in their ward than risk challenging the mayor on a budget fight they perceive as impossible to ever win.
But after Emanuel’s budget address it was clear that the $600 million property tax hike and millions more in new fees could push the City Council to a political tipping point — a series of small changes or incidents becomes significant enough to cause a larger, more important change — that could turn Chicago’s boss in to the “weak mayor” the job was intended to be.
Here’s the reality: Emanuel needs 26 votes to pass his budget, and any other proposal for that matter.
There are 11 members of the City Council progressive caucus who generally don’t side with the mayor on fiscal policy (including Arena); an 18-member aldermanic black caucus that plays nice with Emanuel but doesn’t back the garbage-fee proposal; and a handful of Hispanic aldermen, including Ald. Roberto Maldonado, who think the mayor’s budget proposal, as it stands, well, stinks.
“I am a 'no' vote because I don’t think my constituents believe … that a property tax increase of $540 million is the way to go,” Maldonado said.
When asked for his thoughts on the mayor’s proposed garbage fee — a $9.50-a-month charge per household that hits senior citizens on fixed incomes and working poor homeowners especially hard — the 26th Ward boss put it this way, “Of course it’s not fair.”
But there’s no such thing as fair in Chicago politics, where the “where’s mine” credo coined by the late Mike Royko, a staunch critic of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, still rules among elected officials.
Frankly, budget season, when an alderman’s vote is most valuable to the mayor, remains the only time aldermen truly have any leverage to negotiate with Emanuel.
Rather than risking the political fallout that could come by banding together in a failed attempt to take on the mayor, some aldermen remain inclined to horse trade for a much-needed favor to boost their popularity with voters in their ward.
Maybe that’s why Emanuel’s speech heaped a little credit — or blame, depending on how you look at it — on aldermen whose votes and support the mayor desperately needs.
Emanuel strategically mentioned the powerful City Council finance committee chairman Ald. Ed Burke (14th) — quite possibly the only guy with the clout, cash and political acumen to lead a revolt against Emanuel — and transportation committee chairman Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) as the inspiration behind the proposed surcharge and fee increases on ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft.
But after the mayor’s budget speech, Beale hammered Emanuel’s proposed version of the so-called Uber Tax, saying it leaves at least $50 million on the table, could create “chaos” at city airports and ultimately destabilize the taxi industry.
“I’m going after that $50 million. I’m going to fight to get [the proposed 50 cent per ride fee] back to a dollar,” Beale said. “I disagree with [Uber] being able to pick up at the airport.”
As for the garbage fee, Beale said the flat-fee is a no-go as far as he’s concerned because it will unfairly hit working-poor homeowners and seniors living on fixed incomes.
And even though most members of the black caucus feel the same way Beale does, Emanuel has made a point to pin the idea on “aldermen from across our neighborhoods, together with Inspector General Joe Ferguson.”
One of those aldermen is Roderick Sawyer (6th), who once said garbage fees might not be a bad idea, then backtracked and now again appears to be carrying Emanuel’s water on the controversial proposal.
When I asked Sawyer about that, he made a failed attempt to make his position clear by comparing garbage fees to a Big Mac, whether you're rich or poor “the Big Mac costs the same. … you’re still going to eat and get fed.”
I’m not sure what that means, especially when people living in Lincoln Park mansions would be paying the same fee, or less, as the owner of a bungalow in the part of Englewood he represents.
“Bottom line is garbage service doesn’t change. If they have five carts on a North Side home or one or two carts on a South Side home, my concern is everybody’s garbage gets picked up, that the alleys are clean,” Sawyer said.
“This is an important fee to right our financial ship. We have concerns that are far more serious. I’m very sensitive to income inequality you are talking about but we’re talking about here is basic service that is the same. … I want my alleys to be clean just the same in Englewood as they are on the North Side.”
That comment mirrored part of Emanuel’s budget speech, “A budget must also be in balance with our values. That means investing in things that give all our people a chance at a better life, regardless of where they live in the city.”
While that’s a nice thing to say, we all know that isn’t the reality in Chicago, a city starkly divided by economic class.
Emanuel’s budget proposal is no different. The mayor attempted to address that fact by saying “the lion’s share of the [property tax] burden will be borne by our thriving central business district and commercial area.”
And the mayor touted his proposal to expand a homeowners exemption for homes valued at less than $250,000 that must be approved by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner, which is closer to a hail mary than a slam dunk.
Emanuel described his budget proposal using a couple powerful words, “progressive” and “fair,” which got the attention of the progressive caucus that has been hammering the mayor to make progressive and fair budget reforms from the moment he took office.
“He’s using our rhetoric. That’s fine as long as it’s not just words and it's spirit and line items in the budget. Then there’s a conversation to be had,” Arena said.
North Side Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), also a progressive caucus member, said the mayor’s budget proposal, like a lot of his proposals, lacked important details.
“There was not much said in the speech. There were a lot of high-falutin’ words and phrases but there’s no substance in his actual speech,” Waguespack said.
“It was interesting [the tax increase] went up another $100 million overnight and then it came out to break it up over four years, but there’s no details on that. I think the problem is … we do not get very clear fact-based information available to elected officials, taxpayers or investors and we’ve seen that consistently throughout the administration over the last four years.”
With so many gripes, and a Doomsday property tax hike on the horizon, many aldermen, even his greatest detractors, seem resigned to going down without much of a fight.
An opposition caucus with a majority vote is “always possible but I don’t know if happen this year,” Waguespack said.
“A lot of taxpayers won’t like it. I think he’ll probably have the votes he needs because there are certain groups of people who aren’t affected by the property tax hike and other areas will carry most of the burden. It would take a taxpayer revolt, people fed up with the amount of taxes on them especially in certain areas of the city where [Emanuel] said he was going to make them pay more.”
The man who represents the central business district, Ald. Brendan Reilly, said he’ll be taking the pulse of wealthy Chicagoans facing a heavy tax burden under the mayor’s proposal to find out, “what’s the tipping point. I’m going to spend the next two weeks finding that out.”
I asked Reilly why he thinks Emanuel manages to maintain boss status in the face of a financial crisis that could, in the end, could be a death knell for their political future.
Emanuel “spent a lot of time the last four years forming bonds and relationships with my colleagues. That goes a long way,” Reilly said. “He also has a strong leadership style and with some folks his very direct in-your-face style is enough to get the vote. It’s his strong personality and the relationships he spent a lot of time building that really speak to his ability to get things done here.”
But make no mistake Emanuel’s power remains a gift that Chicago aldermen keep on giving.
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